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Grassroot Economy.

Byline: Dr. Raza Khan

Economic enterprises and businesses operated by radical Muslim groups in Bangladesh have been producing huge profits which has led to an increase in the size of the 'fundamentalist economy' in the country. This growing economy is not only a threat to the mainstream economy but poses a grave threat to social solidarity as well.

According to research conducted by Abul Barkat of the University of Dhaka and presented at the English thinktank, International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) during a seminar, "Economic fundamentalism is strong in Bangladesh." Barkat has listed 123 'radical Islamic organisations promoting Islamic political activism in the country'. He claims to have discovered that the accumulated profit from different businesses and trades established by radical Muslim groups to raise finances was to the tune of $320 million in 2014. Although this is not a big amount, keeping in view the large size of the Bangladeshi population and economy but what is disturbing is the rate of growth of the fundamentalist economy. Barkat says that while the relative size of the economy of fundamentalism may not be very big, danger lies in that as against the 6-7% growth rate of the national economy, the businesses of radical groups were growing at 9-11%.

An important aspect of the research on the Bangladeshi fundamentalist economy is that this is not a new phenomenon but almost four decades old, which is nearly as old as the state itself. Bangladesh got independence from Pakistan in 1971. According to researcher Barkat, the total net profit of Muslim fundamentalist organizations in Bangladesh between 1975 and 2012 was estimated to be nearly $6.5 billion. Barkat says they supported 500,000 full-time cadres in politics, used their influence to place their "own people" in strategic positions and funded day-to-day political activity.

There is an important and interest-ing background of the Bangladeshi fundamentalist organizations' invest-ment in business enterprises. The key fundamentalist outfits of Bangladesh like the Jamaat-e-Islami opposed the creation of the Bangladeshi state tooth and nail and instead sided with the Pakistani state to the extent that they raised militant cadres 'Al-Shams' and 'Al-Badr' to fight alongside the Pakistan army against the Bengali nationalist separatist organization, Mukti Bahini. After the success of the insurgency, the founding party, the Awami League of Sheikh Mujeebur Rahman cracked down on Muslim organizations which supported the Pakistani state forces. Members of these organizations had to go underground and it was extremely difficult for them to raise finances. They then found it appropriate to start businesses and enterprises to earn profits for their own sustenance and that of other organizations.

As the model succeeded, more and more fundamentalist Muslim organizations established businesses and production units to arrange finances to support their people in politics and strategic positions. The fundamentalist organizations have been using the money to create and further their political constituency and social influence. When Islamist parties in countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia, which have relatively stronger secular political and democratic institutions among Muslim countries, fail to grab political power they mostly turn to philanthropy. The purpose is to create a political constituency among the majority poverty-stricken and destitute Muslims. For philanthropic work there is need for huge finances which the radical outfits raise by establishing businesses and even in some cases by setting up industrial enterprises.

In a country like Bangladesh where religious parties are proscribed from taking part in politics, participation in philanthropic work by radical groups becomes more important to keep these outfits relevant. The ban on religious political parties was part of the inaugural state constitution of Bangladesh but after the imposition of Martial Law in 1975 the military junta inserted amendments into the constitution allowing Islamist parties to take part in politics.

In July 2010, the Bangladesh Supreme Court in a landmark decision reinstated the ban on Islamic political parties after striking down the fifth constitutional amendment of 1979. The amendment had allowed religious political parties to flourish and also legalize military rule. It is debatable whether the philanthropic work carried out by these groups could be called charity. However, it is clear that their philanthropic work, despite providing relief to many people on the personal and local level, has negative repercussions at the strategic, state and macro-sociological level.

The growing fundamentalist econ-omy in Bangladesh has strengthened the radical groups financially, which in turn has increased their political influence, albeit indirectly. The money these fundamentalist organizations have been used to finance handpicked people in politics and strategic governmental positions in the hope that they would overturn the ban on religious parties and also create political space. Thus fundamentalist economy is a matter of sustenance and future consolidation of radical Muslim groups in Bangladesh.

On the other hand the fundamenta-list religious outfits of Bangladesh have been using the money from the businesses and trades they established to fight the secularists through propaganda and even violent means. Bangladesh is the third largest Muslim country in the world but the major portion of its population believes in a moderate and tolerant Islam. Radicals dub moderate Muslims as secular and thus label them as 'deviant' from the 'righteous' path. The growing attacks on ultra secular bloggers and media personalities, owned by radical outfits, demonstrate the strength of the latter. This is happening at a time when the state is also continuing to hang leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh for war crimes they are purported to have committed during the war of independence.

The growing fundamentalist eco-nomy in Bangladesh speaks volumes of the inability of the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Haseena Wajid to evolve a strategy that can counter the threat. She has been more enamored by the idea of punishing Muslim fundamentalist who are alleged to have committed crimes against the Bengali population and are also reported to have killed her father, Sheikh Mujeeb ur Rehman. As a result, she has not been able to win the support of the majority of tolerant Muslims of Bangladesh. It appears that there is a need to address the root causes rather than treating the symptoms.
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Publication:South Asia
Geographic Code:9BANG
Date:Nov 30, 2015
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